24 February, 2011


A girl comes to a deserted place where she finds a boy, slightly younger than her who has spent his whole life training in martial arts with his grandfather. The boy knows absolutely nothing about the world but joins the girl in her quest to gather the 7 12 Dragonballs Deviant Blades. Of course, although he loses some fights along the way, the boy turns out to be the strongest warrior possible.

This is the latest and probably one of the last anime I watch. Initially I wanted to lump it together with the Lost post, but they have nothing in common except the fact that the ending is disappointing (and this would be the place I mention that I watch anime because they have endings). But I am getting ahead of myself.

The first impression you get of this anime is the unfamiliar artwork. It's strange and it's crude, so it had better compensate by content. And to some degree it succeeds. The introduction may suggest that I consider it a rip-off of Dragonball, not so. This series is remarkable in that it pretends to be an action series, but is instead a dialog driven journey. The fights are usually less than 5 minutes of the unusually 50 minutes long episodes. Being dialog-driven it reminded me of Bakemonogatari, but the similarity in content and title is no coincidence as they were written and animated by the same people.

While the former excels at what it does, this 'sword story' (rough title translation) could have been better. Not by much as each episode is pretty good in its own right (except the one where we don't even see the fight for the sword; instead it is just summed up by a 2 min. dialog), but they don't seem to be linked in the best way. The pacing is all wrong. I mean he faces of against the strongest enemy, which happens to be his sister, half-way through. What was the logic in that?

Ultimately, it is the ending that stands out. It's appropriate (the feeling that nothing good will come of their quest is pretty much established from the first episodes), but not satisfying in the least. <SPOILER> What is remarkable is how the Japanese don't seem to have any problems killing of main characters, even where there are as little as 2 of them. See Gurren Lagann for a much better example. There, an unexpected death is the only good part I saw in the series. Here, although it is well executed, it prevents the ending from giving a sense of fulfillment </SPOILER> Speaking of lack of fulfillment, although we get to see the Completed Deviant Blade and the power of Kyotouryuu when he is actually unleashed, no longer ordered to protect the swords or himself, it is all for naught. Not even the philosophical twist of Kiki not being a sword smith, but soothsayer which attempted to change history through his Completed Deviant Blade, made any impact as it was offhandedly dismissed as a failure in the epilogue. <SPOILER> And I can't even begin to imagine what they were thinking when they had him end up travelling the country with the wrong princess. I understand to have a non-hollywood happy ending, but this seemed just plain wrong creepy </SPOILER> I guess that's just how the Japanese are... can't understand them, that's what makes their shows special.

So all in all, was it worth the time? Probably.

23 February, 2011

The Story That Should Have Ended

Last time, I had a short look at Lost which, despite its flaws, still is probably my favorite series of recent times (Just in case you were wondering I would say Twin Peaks and M*A*S*H from the old guard). So now I propose to take a look at the context, and why it sucks less than others. The answer to me seems pretty much straightforward: American TV shows are always a neverending story. You have a story to tell (or not even that) and after you are done you attach a new season, and a new one and a new one, just because it had the misfortune of attracting an audience (Luckily Firefly suffered no such problems, that's why it is pretty much perfect).

So, first category of stories gone bad: the ones with good intentions. They had a story to tell, they told it well, but they just couldn't stop. The most famous examples of this category would be Prison Break and Heroes. Heroes has a pretty light tagline: Save the cheerleader, save the world. It tells a story about impeding doom, while crafting a pretty good apocalyptic atmosphere, and some pretty solid character backgrounds, while leading them to a fulminating conclusion where they all meet and we find out how each of them was relevant to the story. The detonation sort of happens, the good guys sort of win, ok everything is the way it should be. So why did they have to end on what I can only call a fake cliffhanger? To milk the cash cow of course. Not that it was immediately bad. No, season 2 was pretty good, while exploring some more of the character backgrounds and telling the best story of all: Hiro's childhood hero. It also features probably the darkest ending I have seen in a TV series and it would have made an awesome season finale, but no... they had to make more. And now jumping on to the second even more relevant example: Prison Break. The whole pith of the show is that you have a genius who has a brilliant plan covering all the details and craftily disguised as a whole-body tattoo to get into jail and break out with his brother. Because of this idea that everything is planned for ahead it is the best action series I have seen and that's why it attracted such a big following. However at the end of the first season the plan is fulfilled, it is done with and the 'Prison Break' is over with. Why drag on? Again, not that it immediately seems like a bad idea, the plan seems to have been crafted for situations on the outside as well but it quickly crumbles and I had to abandon it after just a few episodes because of how worthless it had gotten. And that's just sad. I think it is way better to leave people thinking 'just a little bit more would have been perfect' than 'this should have died a long time ago'.

On to the next category. About this one I am not really sure what to say. The formula is episodic so it doesn't really feel it drags on, and it has some links between episodes but those are mainly character back-stories, or a background for the action of each episode. For this I will chose as prime example House M. D. Of course every programmer (or other profession that is paid for intellectual work, but it's just speculation to generalize) on the face of the Earth idolizes Doctor House. Because of his brilliance and competence. The personality, although not to be envied we have to admit makes for a great comedy show, and if you put that on top of a serious drama show you got a great winner. Sadly, I got tired of the formula, and the writers seemed to have lost inspiration of great jokes after the first two seasons. When you add to the mix that it pretty much had an ending with season 3 when his team leaves him, you can add it to the list of shows that should have ended. But arguably this is still good (I don't see how they could have messed it up), and watchable ad infinitum.

And we get to the final category: shows that have a story arc spanning one season. This may or may not be combined with each episode having some stand-alone story (e.g. Veronica Mars). My favorite example is America's favorite serial killer Dexter. Like House, this show can pretty much work forever because it is mainly not story driven. It is driven by a very strong lead character, and as long as the actor's performance doesn't disappoint you have a recipe for success. The question is how long should you keep going? I already feel the show's strength has been diluted over too many seasons. 1,2 and 4 were great (it's such a pity, this show comes really close to being genius, but always shys away from the last step) but the other two were pretty much useless. Especially the last one: how can you give such an unsatisfying ending to a story? Man finds the closest thing he can have to a soul-mate (and there is reciprocity) and she leaves because... ah, just no reason. I'm glad it is still going on just because it deserves a better end than this. How would it have been if it had ended after season 4? I think it would have been brilliant, the story would have come full circle and also left and open end. How can they even think they can improve on that? We'll just have to wait and see, and analyze the blood patterns.

The Story That Ended

I was writing about JJ Abrams and Star Wars, but let's take a look at the series that made Mr. Abrams famous: Lost.

As a new entry to the series 'not following your own advice', we have to ask Abrams: are you stupid or something? What do you think? Do people want to see that 'something' (and we are never shown what) rips trees out of the ground, like in season 1, or that that something is some kind of black smoke, like in season 3, or that that black smoke is actually a man who became like that because he was throw in a pool with lighting, like in season 6 ? What's wrong with you? Sure people demanded answers, but people don't know what they want. What they wanted was a sense of meaning to the mysteries not a straight out (stupid) revelation. I mean here you are talking about how the technology allows you to do things you wouldn't even have conceived and the final revelation, the climax of the whole show is some guy pulling up a giant cork? and then putting it back in because what he did was 'bad'? I felt like watching Looney Tunes, and it didn't make me laugh. It made me want to swear.

With a poster like this hopes for season 6 were beyond the roof. It suggest a great work of art, inspired by something holy, but instead it goes down the hill, waaaay down. Instead of resolving the existing problems in an elegant manner, it introduces a new, deeply unneeded one, of Jacob and the Man in Black/ Locke, and it resolves it in a pretty shameful manner. What do you think which is better? The 'island' brought the people together or some immortal idiot who doesn't intervene when the script says so and scribbled their names on a cave (at least self-irony is not lost as Jacob tells Kate: they are just some names in a cave). What is to be appreciated though is that they knew from the very beginning that they would offer an ending and approximately when that will come. Unfortunately it came about one season too late.

With all its flaws, the show was pretty much perfect until the end of season 5, so that's where the show ends for me. It's an open ending, sure, but somehow it's better than a reunion in Purgatory. Season 5 had a pretty much perfect treating of the subject of time travel, it really wasn't necessary to follow up by turning it up a notch with parallel worlds. But instead, to give a sense of accomplishment (even if everyone is to die, like Desmond after Ben shot him, thus ruining the 'greater plan' for which Desmond was so special), of closure. The show is definitely worth watching, even if only to see season 5. It gave a good feeling of rounding up and saved what seemed like a wrong decision to make the Others just normal people (back in season 3) going about their day to day lives and conspiracies without a point and with no mastermind. The blank canvas when the bomb does/doesn't detonate makes for a much better ending to the series. And though the ending with Jack just as the show started was pretty well done, you got the feeling of closing the circle after season 5 too and just by a change in logo (intro vs outro):

22 February, 2011

Star Wars Revisited

One thing that I gracefully skipped in the previous Star Wars post was the central question: Why do we care? The answer should be obvious: The initial trilogy was good and we want more of where that came from.

Like any story worth following it has 2 essential ingredients: a strong main storyline and powerful/interesting/well-rounded characters. While it is a traditional good vs evil story it adds a whole lot more to the mix, especially a small dose of spirituality in form of the Force, to make things interesting or seemingly deep.

The review above tells us what the story is about and that it doesn't matter what changes Lucas did over time because characters and the story stay the same. While this is true in all cases it did spawn the probably most heated debate of Star Wars fans: Who shot first?
This, of course, refers to the scene with Han and Greedo, and Han shot first. This was later changed and people felt betrayed because they think that somehow it matters. While I do think the original version is better and makes more sense, I can't really say I care.
Another 'important' change was replacing the emperor in Empire with Ian McDiarmid, and as a final example one that actually sucks (because it makes no sense whatsoever) replacing the ghost of Anakin in Jedi with Hayden Christensen.

So, are the characters why we love Star Wars, or maybe the story? I think there's a secret ingredient that makes this saga timeless and not instantly forgettable, and that secret is in the storytelling and it's mystery. It's that mystery that allows us to feel what we see is a part of something bigger. Here's JJ Abrams explaining it (the bit about Star Wars starts around 8:50, but the context of the mystery box is what's important):

I mean take it from this guy, he is a huge fan. You just need to see how he rips it off pays homage to Star Wars in the 2009 Star Trek film to tell.

After all of this, there is only one conclusion to be drawn: what you don't see is what you like most and what makes something memorable. In cased you missed it in the last part you should read this http://www.rilstone.talktalk.net/viewpoint.htm. It takes a look at all the things that are explained better by mystery. The midichlorians have to be the biggest flaw of the prequel trilogy, a lot worse than the acting for example, because their very existence saps the magic out of the world itself, but the Force:
The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living beings. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together. For over a thousand generations, the Jedi were the Guardians of peace and justice in the old republic. Before the dark times, before the empire.

20 February, 2011

Book trailers

They started making book trailers? Has this been going on for some time and did I just become aware of it now? I'm too lazy to investigate. Anyway the result was that it makes me want to read the book and I probably will.

And it has a follow-up which is apparently not as good as the first book.

You can check out the website http://incarceronbook.com/incarceron_sapphique/index.html
The event is apparently an American release of a British book. Another interesting thing about this book is that the wikipedia article mostly reads like a commercial.

Will the book be any good? I hope so. However, a trailer is not enough to convince me to put it on top of the priority queue, so I still have time to back down.

12 February, 2011

Wasting Time

We all have the tendency to waste some time, some people keep away from the distractions, others find excuses

There are complicated ways to do it

or easy ones

However, when applied right these techniques can greatly improve your output and performance, as is describe in Paul Graham's essay on procrastination. However, his point is more like you should procrastinate things that seem urgent but are not important. People seem to have something else in mind (notice how his point about the whole company picking it up is proven right statistically), and they even admit it.


09 February, 2011

Church Wars

Sadly, making fun of religion is easy. I plan on looking at some of the problems of religion, science, evolutionism and so on, so I hope this sets a good tone.

In case you feel the church is outdated you are wrong, they are still after your money trying to save your soul, even through modern means, like the Confession app you can get on iTunes. Remember, Jesus loves you!

08 February, 2011

Star Wars Surge

Lately it seems to me that Lucas is trying to milk the cash cow bring renewed interest in the Star Wars franchise, adapting it to new trends and audiences (read: ruining it). The prequels will be remade as 3D (can nothing good come out of this technology at all?), the Phantom Menace being scheduled for release in 2012. If you are not familiar with the prequel trilogy this is the most awesome summary anyone has ever done for anything:

The trend of making lots of Star Wars fan videos strikes again. Another example would be a mash-up with Tron which is pretty interesting and just goes to show you can put anything over anything else and if it has enough geek momentum (or fanboyism) it is a win. However in the series of amusing remixes I would say my favorite is the most old school:

If you are in the mood for some looong video reviews here are some I gave a look-over.
And some really, really long ones:
Actually the only one I found quite amusing, because let's be honest that's what they are for (none of them will exactly help you develop yourself as a human being) is this one

There are also some interesting points I noted about the prequel trilogy I wasn't aware of on first look. Like the part about Anakin's name, picked up from here http://reprog.wordpress.com/2011/01/02/luke-skywalker-a-new-hope/, I reproduce it in its entirety and original form because I am lazy it is the most interesting piece of insight on the Star Wars universe I have ever come across.

By the way, I assume the significance of the name Anakin has not escaped you?  ”Ana” is the Greek prefix for “again”, as in “anastasis” (“again life”) for resurrection, and the so-called “Anabaptist” church, which baptised adults who had already been Christened as children.  ”Kin” of course means “family”.  So Anakin is one who one again becomes family. Having explicitly abdicated his role within the family of the Jedi, and even repudiated his love for Padme and, by implication, for his unborn child(ren), he finally returns to become both reunited with his son and, again, part of the Jedi family. Can that be accidental?  If so, if “Anakin” is just a nonsense name like “Boba Fett”, then it is the most absurd piece of good luck of Lucas’s part.

If you are interested on how the new trilogy is a rewrite of the old one and how Anakin (or was it R2D2) is the real hero of the whole 6 movies take a look here http://www.rilstone.talktalk.net/mask-of-god.htm. The numbers indicate the order of the films but each of the posts is a jumbled mess of a point and you need an overview at least to know what he is talking about.

Ok, so enough talk about the prequels. They were pretty crappy but also fun. And I'm not going to talk about the new Clone Wars cartoons because I haven't watched them and honestly doubt that I could find something of interest in them (also note the less than brilliant design).

No, instead let's focus on a good thing to come (hopefully). This year will see the launch of the MMORPG The Old Republic, which is probably the only thing that could put a dent in the World of Warcraft domination of the genre.

Yeah, this baby is made by Bioware the ones that din Knights of the Old Republic (in the screenshot you see Darth Raven and Darth Malak), so we can hope for a good storyline based game. KotOR and KotOR II are some of the best RPGs and definitely some of the best releases of the Star Wars franchise, the first featuring one of the most memorable twists in gaming history, the second some of the more interesting and memorable Sith: Darth Sion, Darth Traya and (although the actual fight and conclusion of his destiny is pretty disappointing and underdeveloped) the best of all Darth Nihilus. And we all know the Sith are the driving force behind any Star Wars story. Or was it the robots? Anyway HK-47 is probably the most brilliant character created in the Star Wars universe (read: comedy relief bomb, so not like Jar Jar).

So let's start summing up, by saying what is good about the Star Wars franchise. Skeptics mention the first two movies and KotOr. I would add to this list just their direct sequels: Return of the Jedi and the Sith Lords respectively. I actually realized episode 6 is better than I remember by watching the Family Guy parody (which is follows the storyline closely, just in an original manner). If you like them you might also like the bunch of sketches they did on Robot Chicken. Although all are stupid and silly, some are really funny and well done http://www.adultswim.co.uk/robot-chicken-star-wars.

All in all we should be grateful to Lucas, wanting to make money is not in itself a bad thing and how can we blame the owners of the product when others are exploiting it as well (although with a lot of style and by creating content of value):

I want to leave you with something inspirational, so in the vein of being grateful to Lucas for making these movies at all here is a video about how he facilitated the fulfillment of childhood dreams (there is a Star Wars bit that starts at 30:50, so squeezing this video in is not cheating :P ).

Is Google Evil?

Already asking this about a company whose motto is "Don't be evil", is a major fail for them.
The article that started this minor problem for them was accusing Bing of stealing their search results http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2011/02/microsofts-bing-uses-google-search.html with screenshot evidence :)

Short form: Google suspected  Bing was stealing results and they organized a sting as presented in the original post (that's where the picture is from). Microsoft's defense is that they are using a lot of input signals, one of them being clicks on Google search results apparently.

However, as was noted here http://www.puremango.co.uk/2011/02/what-on-earth-are-google-doing/, this can hardly have any good implications for Google. If this is a marketing ploy I guess they can be considered evil, if they can't control public announcements they are in the wrong too and about the technical aspect of directly stealing results versus using all clicks, well... it's best to take a humorous view:
Of course they are frustrated and outraged at a competitor 'stealing' but Google could have taken a better approach I guess. Maybe making fun of them like this :) after all if they copy Google results how will they be relevant?